The Syrian government raised the national flag on Thursday over areas of Deraa city that have been in rebel hands for years, a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad in the eight-year-old civil war.
State television said the army hoisted the flag near the post office on Thursday, the only government building in the portion of the city that had been held by rebels since the early days of the uprising that began there in 2011 with large protests.
Government forces backed by Russian air attacks have recovered swaths of southern Deraa province in the last three weeks, advancing unopposed by Assad’s western and regional foes into the strategically vital region near Jordan and Israel.
It marks another milestone in Assad’s efforts to recover control of Syria, where civil war is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven some 11 million people from their homes.
The campaign in the southwest is now expected to target rebel-held enclaves at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel signalled it would not impede the offensive, even as it struck Syrian army posts near the frontier in retaliation for a drone incursion.
With critical help from Russia and Iran, Assad has now recovered most of Syria. Anti-Assad rebels still control a chunk of the northwest, and the northeast and a large chunk of the east are controlled by Kurdish-led groups.
Little hope for negotiated peace
As Assad pursues military victory, there appears to be little hope of a negotiated peace which Western governments say is needed to bring stability and encourage refugees to return.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from neighbouring Beirut, said the rebel factions in Deraa city agreed to surrender and lay down their weapons overnight.
“It is a strategic and a symbolic win for the Syrian government. By this win, the government reclaimed the control of its border with Jordan and the border crossing to start international trade,” she said.
“There is still a pocket controlled by the ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) in Deraa. The government is expected to launch an operation to capture this area,” she added.
Heavily outgunned, rebels in parts of Deraa province reached an agreement to surrender territory last week. In Deraa city, rebels are still in talks with Russian officers to secure safe passage out, rebel officials said.
A senior Russian military delegation entered the rebel-held area of the city on Thursday and began negotiations over its handover to state rule, rebel officials and a witness said.
Two armoured vehicles with senior Russian officers entered the devastated old city and began talks with commanders from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on implementing the terms of the deal.